Party and Platform First

German political conventions demonstrate clearly that in Germany, substance is more important than form. For decades the podium was set to the side, with the stage dominated by up to fifty party leaders sitting in three or four extended rows.

And although in recent years the podium has been moved front and center, the stage continues to be dominated by party leaders. The message is clear. The party and its political platform remain front and center.

German political parties also do their best to keep hidden their internal power struggles. Instead they are presented as debates over substance which should be resolved internally and speedily. The politicians involved are quick to state that the battle is not about themselves or political office, but about important issues of substance.

In public space

Because Germans separate strictly between their work and private spheres, they are very reserved in public. Just as they would never ask their boss about her hobbies or family, Germans very seldom initiate a conversation with a stranger in a public place like a bus, train, store or restaurant. Nor would they talk about aspects of their private life. Both would be inappropriate and make the other person feel uncomfortable.

Germans feel comfortable with periods of silence. They use quiet time to work, read, reflect, listen to music. Deutsche Bahn – German Rail – is modern, fast, affordable, and for the most part on-time. The routes offer beautiful views of the countryside, especially along the Rhine River from Koblenz to Mainz, one castle after the other sitting atop a hill.

Some train cars have rows of seats, two on each side separated by the aisle. Other cars have cabins seating six. It’s not at all unusual to enter the cabin, say “Guten Tag”, sit down, read, reflect, work on a laptop, or sleep and not exchange another word except perhaps “schöne Weiterreise” (literally “have a nice further-trip”), and this over several hours.

Colleagues aren’t best friends

In 2010, Karriere.de, a web-portal on the subject of professions sponsored by the publications, conducted an interview with Simone Janson, an expert on career advice.

The interview was titled Kollegen sind nicht die besten Freunde – colleagues do not make the best of friends, in which she extensively discusses interactions and relations between colleagues. Her statements demonstrate in the German work environment the importance of having a clear boundary between one’s career and private life.

Bei der Arbeit ist zu enger privater Kontakt nicht immer von Vorteil. – Too close of personal contact at work is not always of benefit.

“One can choose one’s friends, but not one’s colleagues […] presumably everyone has had the experience of having a colleague share a lot of private information about themselves, and discussing their private concerns which they did not know how to handle at least once. Or they themselves have shared something private which they then realized was making their sympathetic colleague uncomfortable.”

“There also exist the long-term professional contacts, which eventually evolve into true friendships. Even I can’t succeed in maintaining a strict separation between the two areas. That would be synthetic and non-authentic. After all, no one can forcefully avoid conflict between fellow humans. These are part of cooperating, both at work and at home. Nevertheless, I still advise maintaining a certain professional distance wherever it is necessary.”

Respected in Germany

Robert H. Goddard, now considered the American father of modern rocketry, was often mocked and ridiculed by his fellow Americans during his lifetime, but was well-respected in Germany, largely because of his persuasive techniques.

Early in his rocketry research, Goddard funded his own testing, but as his work grew in scope he began to seek outside funding. However, as a publicity-shy man who tried to keep media-focus on his work instead of himself, most of his attempts to solicit financial assistance failed, with the exception of the Smithsonian Institution, which agreed to grant Goddard modest funding.

In 1917, Goddard made several proposals to the U.S. Army and Navy about the possibility of his rocket research being used in the military. Although both organizations were interested, the only one of Goddard’s proposals that he was allowed to develop was his idea for a tube-based rocket launcher to be used as a light infantry weapon. This launcher became the precursor to the bazooka.

After WWI, Goddard returned to researching rockets, and in 1919 he published a book titled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. As part of this book, he mentioned the possibility of sending rockets to the moon. At the time, this was considered an outlandish and impossible suggestion. Although this was only a small part of the book, Goddard was soon subjected to what David Lasser, the co-founder of the American Rocket Society, called the “most violent attacks.”

In 1926, Goddard successfully launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Partly due to Goddard’s poor reputation and partly due to his media-shyness, this launch was largely unnoticed. In 1929, following one of Goddard’s rocket launches, a local newspaper mockingly printed the headline “Moon rocket misses target by 238,799.5 miles”

Although Goddard had difficulty convincing Americans that his ideas were useful, his work was very persuasive to Germans, and it wasn’t long after his book was published that Goddard began receiving queries from German engineers asking about his work. Initially Goddard answered these queries (his help is even acknowledged in Hermann Oberth’s 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) , however, increasing aggression from Germany began to worry him, and by 1940 he had stopped responding to the engineers’ questions.

Realizing that he may have inadvertently assisted in German development of long-range missiles, Goddard attempted to warn the U.S. Army and Navy about a potential German threat from rockets. Although Goddard was not able to sell his idea that long-range missiles were a possibility (both organizations considered his warnings too far-fetched to be worth contemplation), he was able to sell himself well enough that between 1942 and 1945 the Navy employed him as Director of Research in the Bureau of Aeronautics, where he worked developing experimental engines.

Blaubeuren

The Fall of 1981. My first time in Germany. Blaubeuren, a small town in Swabia. South of Stuttgart. I had signed up for a ten-week intensive course in German at the Goethe Institute. Grundstufe III (Base Level 3). My German back then weak, my memories of Blaubeuren today strong. I will never forget the very first impressions of Germany. The coolness and almost sweetness of the early morning air. The damp lawns and fields. The intense autumn colors of the foliage in a town nestled in the Swabian Alb. The schoolchildren hustling off to school.

The fascinating, yet mysterious, Benedictine Monastery from the 11th Century. The Blautopf  (literally blue pot or kettle), a large natural pool of deeply dark water giving access to a complex network of waterways under the hills surrounding Blaubeuren, with its age-old legends of mystery. The Swabian dialect of the region, a version of German I could only rarely understand. The wonderful baked goods I enjoyed each and every day after lunch.

Important in Germany is not to stick out too much. Is it because they don’t want to make others envious? Or because one should demonstrate how to maintain balance, not get a big head? Or demonstrate a proper balance between individualism and belonging to a group, whose help one may need at any time?

Whether giving presentations in grammar school, in high school or at the university level Germans train, practice and stress over and over again objectivity: stick to the facts, no emotions, avoid gaps in your argumentation, be so comprehensive that hardly any questions are necessary in the question and answer part after your presentation.

You see it in German résumés (curriculum vitae). Factual. Unemotional. Objective. No holes in the educational and professional background. Anticipate all the questions a potential employer might ask. Subjective and personal information is kept to a bare minimum. Adding things such as interests or hobbies is a new trend, imported from the U.S. and not a part of the German logic.

Ambivalence

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ambivalence as “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action; continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite); uncertainty as to which approach to follow.”

Attraction and repulsion. Germans are attracted by logical, well-researched and -argued statements. But they are also attracted by personal appeal, by a speaker who is both appealing and appealing to. Appealing to as in reaching out to.

Germans are repulsed by an imbalance between rational (objective) and personal (subjective) appeal. Mehr Schein als Sein, which translates into more appearance than substance, is a severe criticism. But they are also repulsed, perhaps moreso, by a sophisticated and effective appeal to emotions, to the less rational.

Germans are also capable of persuading by placing themselves front and center, by establishing a personal connection, by appealing to emotions. They choose not to, however. They choose not to teach, train or reinforce it. Ambivalence. They can and often want to, but are wary of the negative effects. Instead, Germans feel the need, the obligation, to constrain themselves, to not go there.

Why? Partly it is their strong scientific, rational, intellectually rigorous approach. Partly it is their belief that persuasion should not be deceptive. Appealing to human emotions – pushing all of the right buttons without the listener being aware of it – is a form of manipulation.

For if the listener is not aware that their thinking is being steered by their emotions, she is not in a position to freely choose to accept or reject the arguments presented. That person is reduced from subject to object. Deception. Manipulation.

Methodology

German academic training focuses on methodology. The quality of results – whether in the natural sciences or in the humanities – is determined by the quality of methodology. German students are taught that the person applying the methodolgy, but not the methodology itself, is interchangeable:

“… the conclusions verifiable; the starting point and operating assumptions logical and understandable; the individual steps taken re-traceable; so that the same results are arrived at by anyone taking the same path of inquiry.”

The academic (scholar, scientist, inquirer) is fully detached from the topic substance, both in the execution of the inquiry and in the presentation of results. Message and messenger are kept separate.

Under the hood

German products focus on the technical. German advertising focuses on the technical. Cars are often presented without the driver, wristwatches without the wrist, newspapers without reader or author. Quality should speak for itself.

German tabloids may personalize the news by displaying large-format photos. Serious publications do not. Content should speak for itself. For Germans it is self-stated that a good product or service aims to serve people. A view under the hood of the car is, therefore, more persuasive than a happy face behind a steering wheel.

Unimportant who presents

Germans believe that it is unimportant who actually presents the arguments as long as the topic has been understood in both its depth and breadth, analyzed with stringent methods, leads to a logical and actionable conclusion, and is communicated in a structured and clear way. The presenter could be a junior member of the team.

Günter Jauch

Günter Jauch, moderator of the very popular German version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, is known for his dry, rational delivery and his uncanny ability to open up his quiz show guests with wit, irony and subject matter knowledge.

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